What’s the cost of letting the poor go hungry?

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Society’s cost for helping the poor has long been monetized, though usually in terms of payouts for such things as financial aid for children and other nutritional assistance.

But in these recessionary times of increased poverty in Minnesota and across the nation, there is another way of looking at the costs of hunger: the broader price borne by both individuals and society if its citizens go hungry.

Such expenses include paying for medical and mental health problems related to food deficiencies as well as such services as special education classes in schools.

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Considered from that point of view, the cost of hunger in Minnesota is estimated conservatively to be at least $1.26 billion and as higher or higher than $1.62 billion a year, according to a report from the University of Minnesota Food Industry Center that was written for Second Harvest Heartland in late 2010.

A newer, national study pushes costs even higher. Released in October by the progressive Center for American Progress in cooperation with Brandeis University, that study estimates Minnesota’s hunger price tag in terms of higher health care costs and poorer education comes to $2.25 billion a year. Their figures are higher in part because the center includes among costs the value of charitable food donations.

That Center for American Progress study puts the national cost of letting people go hungry or under-nourished at $167.5 billion.

The consequences

“This is a condition that does have actual consequences,” says Elton Mykerezi, author of Minnesota’s “Cost/Benefit Hunger Impact Study” and an assistant professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota. The study’s co-author is Jean Kinsey, a professor emeritus in the same department.

Hunger “predisposes” people to physical health problems, psychological and social dysfunction, increased health care costs and lower productivity in the labor force, according to the landmark Minnesota study.

“Eliminating these costs will save taxpayer money, help lower the state budget deficit, decrease health care costs, and increase the health and welfare of millions of Minnesotans,” Kinsey blogged last year about the report, which was underwritten by Target.

Mykerezi’s numbers are “very conservative, very careful, with the highest level of certainty,” says Second Harvest Heartland Vice President R. Newell Searle in praising the study.

Given the increased numbers of the hungry, Mykerezi concedes the costs would be higher today than the study indicates.

Specific hunger effects

Included among the long and serious list of detrimental health effects among youths experiencing ongoing or reoccurring hunger are: iron deficiencies affecting cognitive and physical development, increased depression and suicide among teens, more anti-social behavior, lower math scores and a greater need for special education services in schools.

Hungry pregnant women are at higher risk of giving birth to underweight babies or children with birth defects. Hungry persons are generally less healthy. Hungry adults are two and one half times as likely to be obese and twice as likely to be diabetic as people exposed to nutritious diets and plenty of food, according to the study.

As a result, Mykerezi says, Minnesotans pay at least $925 million annually in direct medical and medication expenses related to hunger issues. The report goes on to itemize additional costs.

Empty calories

Unlike in developing countries where the poor struggle to get enough calories daily, in the United States there is widespread availability of food but all too often it is less nutritious and carbohydrate-heavy, he stresses.

In the United States there is always the “possibility of hitting the dollar menu in the fast food restaurant,” when the poor cannot afford healthier fruits, vegetables and protein foods, he explains.

The state report has attracted the attention of many interested in a business approach: spending money in the short term to save money in the long run, the economist says.

In an example of that, the report points out that for each $1 Minnesota invests in SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), the federal government kicks in $7.50 and Minnesota sees $13.50 “in economic activity that results from hungry individuals spending SNAP dollars in local grocery stores.”

The Minnesota study evolved from discussions by board members at Second Harvest Heartland, says Searle. Instead of fighting hunger, they set a goal of ending hunger. In doing that they realized the importance of putting a dollar figure to the cost of hunger and so commissioned the study.

Another study in 2008 identified an unfunded gap between what low-income persons paid for food with their own, government and charitable resources and what they needed for a healthy life. Twelve percent of meals were not covered, Seale says.

The cost/benefit report is used by Hunger-Free Minnesota, a statewide campaign to end hunger involving a coalition of business people, community leaders, government policy specialists, communities of faith, food banks, food shelves, other agencies and thousands of volunteers.